Elderberry trees represent my Great-Aunt Ruth, who lived in a 18th-century stone home called the "Hillside House" out in the English countryside. She made a delectable Elderflower fizz, which we sipped cold in the shade of her ancient apple tree, before exploring her extensive and half-wild backyard. I’ll never forget learning the difference between the plant cousins, nettle and mint (the hard way) and her careful explanations of similar square stems but differently shaped leaf and petiole.
Her cottage kitchen was cozy and witchy, hung with bunches of drying herbs, jars of jams and preserves, and warmed by a crackling fire. On that visit, my sister and I were convinced of ghosts, when loud bangs emitted from the basement throughout the night. The next morning, she chuckled and explained that it was just Nature’s 7-up popping its corks! That sweet and floral Elderflower fizz had fermented too far and erupted all over her cellar.
It was there at Hillside, while poking around the musty shed greenhouse that I was first introduced to school gardens. Tacked to a bulletin board were coloured drawings of veggie garden plots, seed packets and typed descriptions, and postcards from children in Thailand about growing food. She told me about her garden education project, which had the children in Wootten tending a market garden in her yard and exchanging correspondence with children in a Thai village.
Fast forward thirty years, and I run a school garden program at Salt Spring Elementary in British Columbia, Canada. In fall and spring, I teach 200 children each week about growing and enjoying fresh garden foods, naturescaping for wildlife, and building healthy soil on a sunny slope that we appropriately named the “Hillside Garden.”
Each winter, I take a break and this year my daughter Bryn and I are visiting Ruth’s son (and my cousin) Tim, in Denmark (Tim is in the photo above with husband Renato and me, when they visited Salt Spring Island in 2019). He works on global biodiversity and was the environment reporter for the BBC for many years. The city of Copenhagen, where he lives, also happens to boast one of the oldest, continuously running school garden programs in the world. Yesterday, we rode bikes out to see it and learn more.
We were met at the gate by Gorm Friborg, one of the three main school gardens instructors, and his friend, a hooded gray crow. Gorm has been teaching there for nearly 11 years and is good friends with this crow, partly because he feeds it two eggs each day from the chicken coops. He welcomed us to the København Skolehaven (Copenhagen School Garden) and shared some of its history.
In Denmark, as in North America and much of Europe, school gardens thrived in the early 1900’s. European educators like Montessori wrote about the inherent value of spending time in Nature for children. Moreover, in bigger cities, some families were not getting enough fresh fruits and vegetables. Burgeoning community gardens for urban families spread across the Western world, as well as school gardens for children, providing both short and longer-term solutions. By 1910, school gardens had been established in every Canadian province, with over 70,000 active school gardens across the US.
This Skolehaven program was begun in 1903, the land was protected for this purpose in 1924, and it’s been running ever since. Over 800 primary students (about 34 classes) come each week between April and October, with fewer classes in the winter months. They teach about growing food, natural cycles, and much more, including poultry husbandry and bee keeping. When they slaughter a chicken and dissect it with students, they also provide beans from the garden as an alternative and discuss vegetarianism and the impact of eating meat on the planet (photos below from gardens website).
The most remarkable thing about the gardens to me were the round fire pits at each of the garden plots, with different styles of seating around each one. Gorm explained how the classes gather in a circle around a campfire at the beginning and end of each garden lesson, often cooking the food they gathered over the flames. He described how watching a fire relaxed the students and helped them connect. I’d love to get this established at our schools on Salt Spring! As our boots crunched along the snowy paths of the garden, Gorm added that they’ve recently added a preschool gardening program. Even these younger ones chop their own vegetables and help cook them over the fire.
He pointed out newly-planted heritage apple trees, amidst the hazelnut and elderberry groves. An innovation from the 1920’s included a stack of buckets, some pipes from the toolshed roof gutters, and a large deep concrete basin where students could dip and fill the buckets with water to irrigate their plots without waiting in line at a spigot.
Over hot coffee to warm up, Gorm shared a story of planting an oak tree with his grandfather, who advised that one should always be thinking three generations ahead when gardening. As an adult now, he and his 13-year-old daughter enjoy the shade of that big oak tree and he tries to transmit this message to the children who come to learn in the Skolehaven. Their work is indeed having a big impact, as the Danish Minister of Education has just declared that all students should have access to school gardens soon. With thanks and ideas about establishing a garden pen pal connection for the kids, we said goodbye and biked off into the cold wet winds of wintry Scandanavia.
Later at Tim’s apartment in town, I took the chance to read through his mother Ruth's memoir. She wrote: “Children come to my old house and learn to grow vegetables in my field. We communicate with children from less developed countries who also grow food. We are learning to share experiences with others less fortunate than ourselves… Today we learn that the taker is often the giver, giving others the chance to give. Everyone must be allowed the pleasures of giving.” She ran this children’s gardening program through the 1980’s and ‘90’s and was a teacher for the very young, very old, and troubled youth before that.
Ruth passed away in 2014. Tim says that at her wake, many adults in her village of Wooten came up to him to relate their fond experiences gardening and learning with her at Hillside. Just before we left for this trip, students at Salt Spring Elementary in Canada planted elderberry trees with me in our Hillside Garden--another nod to Ruth.
Here in Copenhagen, my ten-year-old daughter Bryn sipped warm Elderflower Juice as we walked back from the outdoor ice rink to Tim’s house. Tim had prepared a game for her about marine biology and they spent the evening entranced, learning about sperm whales and creatures of the midnight zone. In many ways, Ruth’s legacy of playfulness, love of Nature and children, and commitment to family and community carries on.
Here’s hoping that school garden students of today will remember lessons of natural land stewardship, healthy food-growing skills, and many fond memories to their grandchildren’s generation, too.
(Photo credits to Tim Hirsch, myself, and the København Skolehaver FB site here. Several other nice write-ups with photos about visits to these school gardens in other seasons can be found in English here and here.)